In California swing district, Bera suddenly finds himself vulnerable
© Greg Nash/Doug Ose for Congress

Rep. Ami BeraAmerish (Ami) Babulal BeraU.S. foreign aid empowers women and girls worldwide The importance of advancing the U.S.-India partnership Dem, GOP groups prepare spending blitz for midterms MORE (D-Calif.) has suddenly emerged as one of this year’s most vulnerable incumbents. 

The freshman lawmaker, now in a fight for political survival against former Rep. Doug Ose (R), was never going to cruise to reelection in his perennial toss-up district. But an unfavorable climate for Democrats has made his climb that much harder.

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“Ami Bera’s had a target on his back for two years. He’s known this was going to happen,” said Sacramento-based Democratic strategist Steven Maviglio. “It’s always been a swing district.”

California’s 7th District has become the third most expensive House race in the country, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Candidates have spent nearly $5 million, while outside groups like the Chamber of Commerce and American Action Network and the national party organizations have poured in more than $7 million. 

Earlier this month, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee even pulled a $2.8 million ad reservation from the race to fill retiring Rep. Frank Wolf’s (R-Va.) open seat, which Democrats once viewed as a pickup opportunity in northern Virginia, to instead use the funds in Bera’s district.

Even with high Democratic turnout for President Obama’s reelection in 2012, Bera only defeated then-Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) by a slim margin of 51 percent to 49 percent.

“We’ve been preparing for a close race in this district for a long time,” said Bera campaign manager Danny Kazin, noting that “in 2012, it was one of the closest races in the country.”

Kazin argued that Bera would be able to turn out enough voters despite the nature of the midterm cycle, pointing to the higher-than-expected turnout in the primary where Bera won 47 percent of the vote compared to 40 percent in 2012. California’s primary system pits all candidates, regardless of party, against one another and the top two advance to the general election.

“There was a lot of talk how low turnout would be in the primary,” Kazin said. “We got more votes in the primary that he’d gotten before.”

Turnout among typically Democratic constituencies — including Hispanics, African-Americans and young voters — will be important in determining Bera’s fate again.

“[Bera] needs the high presidential year turnout in order to win the seat,” said GOP strategist Rob Stutzman, who worked on Lungren’s 2012 race. 

Lungren defeated Bera in a similar district in 2010 before California’s congressional map was redrawn after the last midterm election. Republicans had the political wind at their backs in 2010 to win the House majority, and Ose and Republicans are banking on similar turnout. 

“There was no question Lungren was bolstered by the midterms,” Stutzman said.

Voter turnout is expected to be lower in California this year due to the lack of competitive statewide races. Neither Senate seat is up for grabs, and Gov. Jerry Brown (D) is expected to cruise to reelection.

Despite his two-year record in Congress, Bera is still trying to run as an outsider in his reelection bid. He has touted his work with No Labels and support for the 2013 “No Budget, No Pay” law that prohibited lawmakers from getting paid if Congress didn’t pass a budget.

Republicans have tried to turn that message against Bera. Earlier this month, the National Republican Congressional Committee ran an ad slamming Bera for voting against every spending proposal during consideration of the House GOP budget resolutions in 2013 and 2014 despite his support for “No Budget, No Pay.” However, the ad omitted the fact that Bera voted for the 2013 budget pact negotiated by House and Senate Budget Committee chiefs Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

Meanwhile, Democrats have largely attacked Ose, who served in the House from 1999 to 2005, for his personal wealth. DCCC advertising has claimed that Ose voted to raise his own pay in Congress, but the Republican’s campaign and independent fact-checkers have debunked them. The DCCC's ads have also highlighted that Ose voted to send more than $100,000 in taxpayer funds toward companies he had invested in, as well as that his wealth "increased significantly" while serving in Congress.

For his part, Ose has tried to associate Bera with Washington gridlock and present himself as a fresh alternative. “Washington is broken, and Ami Bera is part of the problem,” one ad said, pledging that Ose, who was known as a centrist during his House tenure, would be an “independent voice” and “work across party lines.”

Ose’s argument is that he has demonstrated an ability to work with lawmakers of both parties and avoid congressional dysfunction.

“Going back, he’s viewed as a moderate on social issues and on all the fiscal issues he’s conservative. That balance plays pretty well here,” said Ose campaign spokeswoman Michawn Rich.

Rich added that Ose has been securing as many local endorsements as possible to highlight previous work for the district, such as Sacramento County Supervisor Jimmie Yee.